San Jose church faces lawsuit over fatal 2020 stabbing
Philip Garcia, a maintenance worker at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, cleans the steps of the entrance. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Two people are suing a local church and its associated homeless shelter in downtown San Jose over a 2020 stabbing that killed two residents and injured three others.

    The lawsuit, filed last week in Santa Clara County Superior Court, comes from a survivor and a widow of one of the deceased. The duo, represented by San Francisco-based attorney Rafael Crespo Jr., claims the organizations are responsible for the stabbing, as they should had evicted the attacker for his known violent behavior before the incident.

    The complaint names Grace Baptist Church, nonprofit and homeless shelter operator Grace Solutions and perpetrator Fernando Jesus Lopez as defendants. Lopez is currently in the county jail system and is expected in court on June 3, according to county documents.

    The fatal stabbing happened at the church’s winter homeless shelter in November 2020. The shelter has been crucial to the unhoused population in downtown as it provides hot meals, showers and a place to sleep overnight. Lopez, a homeless person who often stayed and volunteered at the location, stabbed five people, including James Chelley and John Paulson.

    Chelley, a frequent volunteer at the church shelter, survived the incident after being stabbed multiple times in the back. Paulson was found dead at the scene. Paulson’s widow, Beverly Paulson, is filling the suit with Chelley. Their lawyer did not respond to inquiries about the complaint. It’s not immediately clear how much money in damages the duo is seeking.

    Grace Baptist Church Pastor George Oliver said the religious institution understands the decision to sue. He was not the church leader when the stabbings occurred.

    “The church grieves alongside those who mourn the loss of the two lives that were lost, and the three other lives that are putting their lives back together,” Oliver told San José Spotlight, adding he had spoken with Chelley this week. “I let him know that his church loves him. Not one person is going to treat him any differently.”

    The nonprofit, Grace Solutions, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, board member and homeless advocate RJ Ramsey told San José Spotlight.

    A gruesome event

    The lawsuit claims Grace Solutions and the church knew about Lopez’s violent tendencies and history of getting into arguments and physical fights with others at the shelter. It further alleges other participants and volunteers “feared” Lopez.

    “In addition to multiple assaults, it was commonly known that Mr. Lopez had gotten in an argument with his wife and chased her around her car in an attempt to assault her prior to this incident,” the lawsuit read. “Mr. Lopez also assaulted a woman with a shovel or stick on or near the day of the subject incident.”

    But the organizations did not evict Lopez from the shelter or church property, nor did they provide proper security to prevent the stabbings, the suit claims.

    According to an agreement between the church and the nonprofit shelter shared with San José Spotlight, Grace Solutions is responsible for maintaining security.

    During the incident, the suit said Chelley ran downstairs from the second floor after hearing screaming and yelling. He saw a victim unconscious and bleeding and tried to help resuscitate him before Lopez attacked and stabbed Chelley in the back. Chelley escaped Lopez’s attack and ran into a room where several women were hiding. He helped them get out of the building and used his body to stop the door as Lopez tried to break in. Chelley eventually escaped and was taken to the hospital for his injuries.

    “I’ll say, with tears in my eyes, (Chelley) is a hero,” Oliver said, adding while the church can’t support the lawsuit, it will continue to support Chelley. “The position of the church is we expect to deal fairly with the victims and their loved ones.”

    The religious institute is also dealing with an internal fight over whether to demolish the church to develop housing for the downtown area. Oliver said the COVID-19 pandemic and the fatal stabbing have led to some significant financial shortfalls within the church’s budget.

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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